ØIn 2006, 63% of young Americans in 2006 could not find Iraq on a map and 30% identify the US-Mexican border as the most heavily fortified in the world.
ØA 2003 adult literacy study found that the literacy of college graduates declined significantly in the 1990s.
ØA full 45% of high-school seniors in 2006 could not understand the basic information on a sample ballot.
ØIn a test of more than 14,000 college freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges from all tiers, the freshmen failed with an average score of 51.7%. Questions covered American history, government, foreign relations, and the economy. Seniors didn’t do much better, adding just 1.5%, still failing miserably on average.At Berkeley, the scores actually went down over the course of the four years from 60.4% to 54.8%.
These and a heap of similarly dismal statistics regarding Gen Y, or the Millennials, pile up in Mark Bauerlein’s compelling study, The Dumbest Generation. The book’s two subtitles sum up the argument: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, or Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30. They spend the longest amount of time in school, have access to countless resources of information, and have more money and leisure than any generation.
Yet in spite of all these advantages (and to a certain extent because of them), the generation now in their teens or twenties has the poorest intellectual habits and foundation for knowledge of any before them. They shun books, avoid intellectual issues, and generally ignore anything associated with history and traditional culture. If something is hard to read or difficult to understand, it’s labeled boring. This is known as the “Sesame Street effect”: if learning isn’t any fun, it isn’t any good.
Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University who was a director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, describes how the comforts and high-tech know-how of American life that are supposed to make the young global citizens and well-informed consumers instead thwart intellectual growth:
The middle-class teenager may attend a decent high school and keep a B+ average, pack an iPod and a handheld, volunteer through his church, save for a car, and aim for college, and still not know what the Soviet Union was or how to compute a percentage.
Technoenthusiasts counter that the teenager can easily learn what the Soviet Union is any day of the week at Wikipedia and can certainly use a computer to calculate just about anything. But they miss Bauerlein’s point. Without a firm foundation of general knowledge, students and young adults lack the facts necessary for critical thinking and complex analysis. They can never be informed citizens. If you don’t know which countries border Israel, you can’t do much critical thinking about the Middle East. If you don’t understand the balance of power in the US government, it’s hard to fathom how budgets and taxes get set or how laws get enacted.
Drastic Decline in Reading
The National Endowment for the Arts sponsors an ongoing survey of the voluntary reading of literature, including novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. (It excluded any reading that was required for school or work.) The survey indicates that over the past 25 years there has been a drastic reduction in the amount of reading among younger Americans:
1982 1992 2002
18—24-year-olds 59.8 53.3 42.8
25—34-year-olds 62.1 54.6 47.7
35—44-year-olds 59.7 58.9 46.6
45—54-year-olds 54.9 56.9 51.6
55—64-year-olds 52.8 52.9 48.9
65—74-year-olds 47.2 50.8 45.3
In 1982, the youngest group was the second-strongest reading group. By 2002 it was the weakest, with the decline accelerating from 6.5 between 1982 and 1992 to 10.5 between 1992 and 2002. The total 17-point drop represents a decline of 28%. “If all adults in the United States followed the same pattern,” Bauerlein contends, “literary culture would collapse.”
The lack of reading among this generation is problematical for many reasons. Studies show that children who learn to read early in life both read and learn faster throughout their adult lives. Their vocabularies are wider. They do not have to stumble over words and phrases. Study after study links academic success, literacy, and general knowledge and skills to the amount of time spent in daily reading. Yet the young overwhelmingly reject books and reading in general in favor of other leisure activities. They see no barrier to their careers in so doing, even though employers bemoan the lack of writing skills and general knowledge in their youngest workers.
Caught in the Now
Can all this decline be attributed to our digital age? Take a look at what young people do with their considerable leisure time of about five and one-half hours per day on average. A 2005 Kaiser study of 8- to 18-year olds found that 84% watch TV for about three hours each day while less than half—47%—read a book for about 20 minutes in the day (and this may include homework time).More than half (54%) use a computer, with almost an hour of their time spent at the computer online. About 40% play video games (32 minute at a console, 17 minutes with a handheld).
The total amount of time spent plugged in one way or another adds up to six and one-half hours—nearly equivalent to a fulltime job. Although researchers conjectured that as young people spent more time on video games and laptops, TV time would decline, that was not the case. In fact the more students used one media, the more they used other media as well. Concurrently multitasking has risen so that the actual total amount of media content actually consumed amounts to eight and one-half hours per day.
Too Many Choices?
Bauerleinfinds it paradoxical that the Millennials, with all their advantages and access to knowledge and information on the Internet, in libraries, and other free resources, have less general knowledge and research and writing skills than previous generations. Yet it may be that there are just too many readily available options. In his autobiography, the eminent Victorian critic John Ruskin describes the paltry number of toys he was allowed as he grew up as a sheltered only child. With few diversions he could quietly and methodically develop his interest in art and architecture and begin to cultivate an aesthetic sense. He played for hours with some wooden blocks. He studied and traced the patterns in the rugs and furniture fabrics. He wrote poetry. By contrast, his late twentieth-century counterparts watch TV sitcoms and reality shows, play video games, and text their friends, who are doing the very same things. Multitasking, web surfing, and overstimulation replaces grappling with hard issues, enjoying quiet reflection, and building skills, such as writing, reading, drawing, or playing a musical instrument. Little wonder their sense of beauty is stymied and their ability to follow carefully nuanced arguments undeveloped.
What They Lose
Understandably, faced with the bold anti-intellectual slacker mentality, Bauerlein scolds and denounces repeatedly, and he genuinely worries what will happen to the country when this generation takes a leading civic role. However, it may be more appropriate to offer them sympathy and profound condolences for their losses. By brashly rejecting a rich historical tradition, their lives are significantly diminished in ways they may never even understand. They will never know the pleasure of reading Shakespeare or Tolstoy or George Eliot, of listening to Bach and Brubeck, and connecting to the best that humanity has to offer. When the younger generation is plugged into the Daily Me and their Facebook page, they lock themselves into a feedback loop that reinforces and indeed intensifies a rather dreary and trivial life.
RL (Real Life) 3.0?
This upcoming generation may know the latest machines and technologies, but they remain cut off from realizing their full human potential. They willingly embrace the virtual and miss out on the best of the real. In ignoring everything that’s hard to achieve or difficult to understand, they lose the priceless joy of facing big challenges and meeting one’s goals. Caught up in the now, worshipping a material present, the mind dulls, the heart contracts, opportunities to think critically and judge wisely about the future dwindle and disappear. When texting cryptic messages and “talking” with faceless, mostly nameless strangers in chatrooms become the dominant forms of communication, it may herald a time when the simple joys of life itself are beyond our grasp.